Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Cats in Literature

My cat, Effy.
When I think about cats in literature, the first thing (or the first cat, rather) that springs to mind is the Rum Tum Tugger from T. S. Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats. I don't think it's unfair to say that Eliot is a good starting point when it comes to thinking about cats in books. Skimbleshanks is another favourite, along with Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer: two very bad cats ("They were highly efficient cat-burglars as well, and remarkably smart at smash-and-grab"). In fact (partly owing to Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats!), most of the cast of cats in that slim volume of poetry are memorable. Bustopher Jones, too, and Old Deuteronomy, Gus, Macavity, oh, and Mr. Mistoffeles! Eliot can be credited for writing about everyone's cat.

But, there are many other cats skulking about the pages of literature. Just in the last post, I wrote that I like Ray Smith of The Dharma Bums because after attaining enlightenment (of some kind, at least), he fed his cat. Ted Hughes wrote a poem called Of Cats (in Lupercal): "So we are held in utter mock by the cats". Cats do have a tendency to bring one back down to earth. 

Then you have Graymalkin of Macbeth, a name also found in Scottish folklore (also spelt 'Grimalkin'). "I come, Graymalkin", says one of the three witches. Grimalkin, another cat, is also in William Baldwin's Beware the Cat (1561).

Cheshire Cat.
But, they're not all evil. Dinah from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland was lovely, though also a notable hunter. And speaking of Alice, no one can forget the Cheshire Cat. Credited with being very philosophical, the Cheshire Cat is also supremely awkward: this latter point is more true, I feel, to cats. I know I don't credit mine with such intelligence, however much I have loved them.

Many authors we love have mentioned cats at least somewhere along the line. Montaigne famously asked, "When I play with my cat, how do I know that she is not passing time with me rather than I with her?", P. G. Wodehouse observed, "The trouble with cats is that they've got no tact", and Saki wrote, "The cat is domestic only as far as suits its own end".

William S.Burroughs wrote, "The cat does not offer services. The cat offers itself. Of course he wants care and shelter. You don't buy love for nothing. Like all pure creatures, cats are practical." Very true. And it reminds me of Elizabeth Wurtzel's love for her cat, Zap. Zap kept her in check as far as anyone was ever able to keep Wurtzel in check. I also remember a quite from an American writer, who I don't remember, who thanked her cat in her acknowledgements: her cat kept her typing, she said, because when it settled on her lap and went to sleep she didn't want to disturb it. Vladimir Nabokov is another famous cat lover who looked after Tom Jones, May Sarton's cat. Sarton wrote,
Tom Jones soon learned that he was welcome to install himself at the very heart of genius on Nabokov’s chest, there to make starfish paws, purr ecstatically, and sometimes — rather painfully for the object of his pleasure — knead. 
Yes, cats are scattered everywhere, and I haven't mentioned Hermione Granger's Crookshanks, Tom Kitten, The Owl and the Pussycat, or even the terrifying Church Hill of Pet Semetary. I love cats, they're the cornerstone of humanity. You come home to them, feed them, and if they love you then chances are you're an awesome human being. They're always there, somewhere.

My cat, Effy, died very suddenly yesterday. We had her for seven months: rescued from the forest. She was beautiful and lovely, and had exceptionally large paws. She was old, and we loved her, and her whole life ought to have been full of love and happiness, not just the last seven months. If I ever write a novel, she'll be in it somewhere. I was very proud of her. Considering she was at the least semi-feral, she was the cleanest, sweetest, little cat I've ever known. 


  1. I'm sorry about your cat; you'll miss her. Do you think Pangur Ban is one of the first literary cats? Pangur Ban

  2. I think this was the first observation on cats in literature I've ever read. I have never thought about them either, but from now on whenever a cat crosses my path somewhere on a page I will pay close attention to its role. I am looking forward to some interesting new insights, although I am sorry for little Effy!

  3. I'm so sorry about Effy, O. This post truly was a beautiful way to honor her.
    I love to see animals in literature. Buck is obviously a main example, but also Boxer, the Lintons' dogs, etc. I haven't read any of the works you mentioned, but I'll make sure to add them to my reading list.

  4. I am very sorry about the loss of your cat, our 19.5 year old Siamese Mr C passed away on valetines day. A cat novella I really like is Two Women, a Man, and a Cat by Junichiro Tanizaki-

  5. Jean - Quite possibly :) I love that, thanks for the link :)

    Cassandra - Thanks, hon :) And yes, I think cats in literature aren't looked at enough. I suppose, if you think about it, if an author loves cats, then when a cat is mentioned, sometimes surely it must have a little more meaning than we give it credit for.

    Caro - Thanks again you were so lovely last night - I can't tell you how much I appreciated it. Honestly, you did make all the difference. Before we chatted I really was feeling... I don't know *what* I was feeling, but it was awful. So thank you <3

  6. mel u - Sorry to hear about your cat :( It is so awful. And 19? What a grand old age - you must have taken excellent care of him.

    And yes, I'll check that novella out, thank you :)

  7. I'm sorry to hear about Effy. I never had cats until I was married and now I have three. I love them dearly, so I can understand how much it must hurt right now. *hugs*

    This was a fitting tribute.

  8. What a lovely post to dedicate to your sweet Effy! When I think of literary cats I also think of Agnes Grey and the poor feline who belongs to the woman in the parish named Nancy Brown. The cat is treated horribly the rector and others. But Agnes and Mr. Weston are kind and attentive towards him. I think Bronte was really making a pointed statement about humanity: how one treats animals is, in many ways, indicative of what kind of person one is. You are an Agnes, a Mr. Weston in that respect. The world needs more people like you! Although she should have lived much longer, Effy was incredibly lucky to spend her last months with you in such happy circumstances.

  9. So sorry to hear about your cat. I'm glad she got those 7 months of happiness with you.



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